By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
It’s surprising to hear Zach Ramirez talk about his success at Portland State University as “unexpected.”
Ramirez, who went by Zach Brown when he was a Celtic at McNary High School, started racking up school records as a sophomore and continued growth led to his being named as an All-American in numerous polls and venues after his junior season. His name is in the Viking record book for most career field goals and a field goal conversion rate of 89 percent among others, but he didn’t join the team as a kicker.
“I was up there to be a receiver,” Ramirez said. “The transition was harder than I thought it would be because I wasn’t getting many minutes, maybe a few at the end of each game. It was difficult to have the whole team out there playing and watch it from the sideline.”
Last week, a year after graduating from PSU, Ramirez signed on to play with the Arena Football League’s Portland Thunder as their place kicker.
In his freshman year at PSU, the Vikings had a senior kicker and three more lined up right behind him. When his field time didn’t grow much in his second year, Ramirez made the decision to try out for kicker but he had to beat out the players in line ahead of him.
“The first week I tried out they thought it was a fluke, but they let me do kickoffs and put the other guy on field goals,” Ramirez said. “A couple of weeks later they let me challenge him again after practice. We were playing Pig or something and I outplayed him.”
From that point on, Ramirez was the team’s go-to place kicker. He still didn’t get on to the field as often as he would have liked but, as long as the team got within range of a field goal – and Ramirez hit two as far away as 53 yards – it was an opportunity for a more consistent presence.
Ramirez credited his coaches with a lot of support, but it was teammates Connor Kavanaugh, PSU’s holder, and Braedyn Eagle, the Vikings’ long snapper, who gave him the most needed support.
“A hard word from Connor was all I needed,” Ramirez said. “He talked me through every hold and patted me on the back after each attempt. Braedyn did the same thing. They made me feel like part of the game even though I wasn’t on the field. It would have been harder process without them, and I probably would have grown slower.”
In his junior year at PSU, Ramirez made 24 of 27 attempted field goals and garnered nationwide acclaim. It led to a tough choice regarding where to put his focus.
“I had to decide whether I was going to focus on school or football, and I chose to put it into football with the hope that if I was able to land something it would pay me enough to go back and finish up a degree in health sciences,” Ramirez said. “My academic advisor didn’t agree with my decision, but she helped me figure out a way to graduate with a degree in community health.”
On the first kick of his senior year, Ramirez was run into by another player and suffered a torn MCL. He returned later in the season, but was still adjusting to the injury when he took part in a training camp for the Seattle Seahawks in 2013. From there he went to a three-day tryout with the Green Bay Packers.
“I beat out Giorgio Tavecchio who ended up with the Detroit Lions, but I’m still learning about what coaches are looking for in a kicker,” Ramirez said.
He outperformed three NFL kickers and the rest of the competition at a free agent camp shortly thereafter, and that’s where most of his opportunities in recent months arose. Signing with the Thunder is the latest in a series of talks and tryouts with the New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns.
He’s only had two Thunder practices and one game (they lost to the LA Kiss 69-61), but there already a number of differences.
“The atmosphere feels small because I’m used to open field, but it was louder than the PSU games. I haven’t hit the ground yet, but the carpet has a different feel. You’re on it and not in it,” Ramirez said.
Since he was young, the crowds at football games have held most of the allure for Ramirez.
“That’s why I chose football over soccer. I’d rather play football in the U.S. because I enjoy the fans. People go there because they want to see what you can do even if they don’t like your team. As one of my coaches said, ‘If they’re booing that means they know you can do it,’” Ramirez said.
More than the records and the crowd, Ramirez has grown to love the feel of being on a team, and that’s what’s going to keep him on the path a little while longer.
“I’ve seen how quickly that network dissipates after you stop playing,” Ramirez said. “What’s great isn’t even the sport itself. It’s being around people who have the same thoughts as you do about something that you love. You enjoy them every minute you’re on the field. Even the guys you hate, the ones who do things you wouldn’t do or say things you wouldn’t say, but you go give them a hug at the end of practice.”